Pete Muller is a fascinating person, one of those gifted people whose vast array of talents is intimidating. Not only is he a brilliant singer-songwriter, but he excels at surfing and, if that’s not enough, he’s a quant investing innovator, a philanthropist, and creates crossword puzzles for the Washington Post.
Muller isn’t merely talented; he’s super-talented, having just returned from Europe, where he performed at the Montreux Festival in Switzerland, and the Umbria Jazz Fest in Italy.
His latest album is Dissolve, and his latest music video/single is “Let You In,” a duet with singer and co-writer Missy Soltero. “Let You In” narrates the significance and difficulty of vulnerability in relationships, simply because exposing one’s self to others is scary.
The music video, directed by Lenny Bass, projects a poignant imminence, displaying warm images of couples dropping their guards and beginning to dance, as the smooth textures of the music and delicious vocals take effect.
Intrigued by Muller’s marvelous abilities, I sat down with him to discover the source of his panoply of endowments. Mostly, I wanted to find out how a Quant writes such gorgeous music. As you’ll see, he turned the question topsy-turvy.
How would you describe yourself?
Heartfelt, intense, curious, analytical.
I love learning new things and getting good at them.
I love being outside, in the mountains or in the water.
I love to be inspired.
I love creating and solving puzzles.
I love creating music and also listening to it.
I love teaching and inspiring and watching others grow.
What is the most trouble you’ve ever gotten into?
I almost died a couple of times when I was in college — once getting too close to the edge of a waterfall near Killarney, and once getting stuck free climbing a mountainside in jeans near the Matterhorn. I got smarter after that.
The stupidest thing I’ve ever done is also related to my favorite story about my Dad. When I was in high school, I decided to steal a Chapin Road street sign for a friend who loved Harry Chapin and was going off to college. I drove 15 miles from my house at 1am and managed to get the pole bearing the street sign out of the ground, but didn’t have an Allen wrench to remove the sign. So I stuck the whole pole in my car (with 5 feet sticking out of the window) and drove back home. Pretty smart, huh?
I tried to sneak into the house but my Dad was up. When he saw what I had done, he uttered his most famous line: “I don’t know what I’m more disgusted at, your total disregard for the law or your mechanical incompetence.” He then proceeded to get me an Allen wrench and show me how to use it.
What’s your favorite song to belt out in the car or the shower?
(I’m Tired of Begging for) “Scraps of Your Love.” My wife sometimes dances around while I sing it.
Who is your favorite music artist?
There are so many. I’ve been inspired by Brandi Carlile, Shawn Colvin, Patty Griffin, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, and Van Morrison. I love listening to the Avett Brothers, Dawes… I can keep going for a while.
How did you get started in music? What’s the backstory there?
I took classical piano lessons as a child for five years and then got bored and quit. A friend turned me on to a studio musician (John Amodeo) in a nearby town, who was teaching jazz improvisation out of his house, about 30 minutes away from me. Fortunately, he had a charming wife, so my Dad didn’t mind driving me since he could chat with her while I did my weekly lessons. I only went for a couple of years, but learning to improvise changed my life.
I didn’t start writing until after going through a challenging breakup 20 years ago.
I had some friends in a band who invited me to a songwriting circle, and I loved the idea so much that I started hosting a weekly one. It lasted five years. Needing to write a new song every week really helped my writing.
I only started getting serious about singing five or so years ago. Taking voice lessons with Valerie Morehouse had a huge impact on my being able to express myself vocally.
What musicians influenced you the most?
John Coltrane has to be close to the top of the list. Kenny Werner’s book Effortless Mastery inspired me a lot. I love the energy Fleetwood Mac created with a strong male/female balance and have tried to make sure our band always has that.
You’re also a renowned ‘Quant,’ one of those eggheads who use algorithms to trade stocks. How did a ‘Quant’ ever end up composing such excellent music?
It might be more accurate to ask how a musician became a quant. Both disciplines involve understanding complex patterns.
Moreover, in addition to music and math, you create crosswords. How does one get started in crosswords?
I started solving puzzles — I began with the daily NY Times crossword. Then I tried creating one. I sent it in to Will Shortz, who rejected it, but with an encouraging note. I kept trying. Eventually he accepted one, and then I published quite a few in the Times. After a while, I decided to start my own monthly (music-themed) meta crossword puzzle, which is now carried by the Washington Post.
What’s a meta puzzle?
A meta crossword is a type of crossword where you have to figure out a final answer after the entire grid is filled in.
And you surf, which makes you pretty much a Renaissance Man. Do you consider yourself a renaissance man?
I guess I do have quite a variety of things I’m passionate about. Getting in the ocean is quite the healing experience.
How would you describe your sound?
Americana with some rock/soul vibes.
What inspired your new single “Let You In?”
I was riding to LA with Missy Soltero (who sings in the band), and she was telling me about this new guy she was falling for, and how scary it was to open up to him. I started riffing on how it’s important (yet hard) to stay vulnerable after you’ve been married.
We thought it was something many people could identify with — the need to make yourself vulnerable in order to create/maintain a love relationship, despite the possibility of getting hurt.
Missy had been fooling around with the chorus melody on her own, and by the time we got to the gig we had the chorus done. We played it for Whools (fellow band member John Whoolilurie) and he loved it. We had a song.
That weekend Missy shared more details about meeting the guy, and most of the story focuses on their courtship…but since I wrote most of the lyrics, I also mixed in details from my life.
Your latest album is entitled Dissolve. What’s the story behind the title?
I’m a fairly stubborn, independent person, and I married someone who has a similar nature. Relationships require compromise, and when you’re very independent, compromise can require breaking down, or dissolving parts of oneself.
There are a number of songs on the record about the relationship struggle (the surrender required to fall in love, the tension of balancing competing interests/desires).
A couple of the songs are about people close to me who died — “Alive in Me” is about my Mom and “The Man Behind the Scenes” is about my good friend and producer of my last record, Rick DePofi. I guess death is the ultimate form of dissolving.
Dissolving is breaking down, surrendering, letting go of attachments, unhealthy patterns, and accepting the ephemeral nature of our essence.
What’s next for you musically?
We just got back from doing some really fun dates in Europe — at the Montreux and Umbria Jazz Festivals, and a show in Valencia, Spain. We had such a great time and are all excited to keep playing live.
Our next dates will be in Colorado in September.
I will also come back to writing soon — I have three songs for the next album and hope to be able to record again early next year.